A Year In, India's Modi Still Won't Talk to Press

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his supporters during a rally in Mathura, India, on May 25, 2015. On the eve of his government’s first anniversary, Modi traveled south from New Delhi to a region hard hit by crop losses and bad weather to counter opponents’ gibes that he is losing support in the rural areas, home to 70 percent of Indians. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Social media is awash today with messages marking the first anniversary of Narendra Modi's swearing in as India's prime minister. Modi himself is celebrating with tweets to his online followers and others that make exaggerated claims about his government's successes.

Amid all the trending, it is worth noting that the prime minister's communications with his electorate, and the wider world, are a one-way street where he speaks and others receive the message. Of course, people can reply through tweeting or other statements, but Modi has avoided on-the-record questions from the media. Amazingly, he has not dared to hold a press conference, which would be attended by Indian and foreign journalists, to mark his first year in office today. Nor has he done a TV interview.

This lack of willingness to expose himself to media questions has been widely criticized, but Modi might be surprised by the fact that even Lance Price, the British writer whom he personally selected to be the chronicler of last year's election victory, says he should open up.

"I believe it is a fundamental principle of a democracy that an elected prime minister should be accountable through the media," says Price, whose book The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi's Campaign to Transform India, was published in March. "That means answering legitimate questions put freely by journalists on a fairly regular basis."

This is what Modi has resolutely refused to do since becoming prime minister, preferring to tweet one-liners that do not bring journalists' questions. He has also relied on own his considerable skills at oratory in front of mass audiences where no journalist can question him, and on his able, all-purpose finance and information minister, Arun Jaitley, letting him face the press.

Price, who used to be a spokesman for former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, voiced his criticism during a session on Modi's first year that I was moderating at the Jaipur Literary Festival's JLF at South Bank, May 16 in London. I asked him at the end of the session to imagine he was again a prime ministerial adviser—to Modi—and comment on his chances of winning a second five-year term in 2019.

He thought Modi could be reelected if he made more progress, and was very critical of him for not making himself available to the media. Later, he gave me the comment I quoted above. He also said, "I was given exclusive access to Narendra Modi for my book, but unusually for a journalist, it is an exclusive I would gladly give up."

Rare Five Hours of Modi Interviews

Price says that he was head-hunted for the job of writing a book on Modi's victory, and that he had about five hours of interviews with the prime minister in three sessions last year. No other writer has had anywhere near that access. Rajdeep Sardesai, who wrote 2014: The Election That Changed India and was also on the JLF panel, had no such meetings, even though he has known Modi for some 20 years and talked with him until the election.

At first glance, it seemed odd that Modi should choose to provide the opportunity for long and exclusive interviews with a book writer who, though he has visited India several times, has never written about the country. Nor was he in India during the election, so he had to start his research from scratch.

But maybe that was the exactly the detachment and lack of background knowledge that Modi wanted, because it would limit what the author could achieve in terms of analysis and criticism when revisiting historical events such as the 2002 riots in Modi's Gujarat state.

Price says in his book that Modi may have chosen him because he wanted to be recognized on the world stage and be compared "as a consummate genius of electoral tactics" with people like Blair, But, he adds (and I agree), the more likely reason is that he "came with no prejudices or preconceptions."

Modi is probably pleased with the book, which does not have the personal revelations and insights one might have expected after five hours of interviews. Instead, there is a workmanlike history of the man and a very detailed account of the election campaign, with special emphasis on social media and mass communications.

Apart from Price's five hours, there seem to have been no other long interviews, though Modi has recently met (with Jaitley) a few carefully selected groups of editors, economics correspondents and (a few) foreign correspondents, who were not allowed to report what was said.

Modi has given only two on-the-record interviews to the Indian media: with the Hindustan Times last month and Dainik Jagran (in Hindi) on May 11. Then there was one with Time magazine, which was published internationally on May 7 along with a cover story on him, and one with The Economist.

The first three were presented in question-and-answer form, allowing Modi to say what he wanted without being seriously challenged by follow-up questions. The Economist, however, published only selected quotations in a special 10-article report with a somewhat negative headline: "India's one-man band. The country has a golden opportunity to transform itself. Narendra Modi risks missing it."

That cannot have been what Modi was hoping for, though he knew what he was getting into because the magazine couldn't bring itself to recommend him and his Bharatiya Janata Party in the general election last year and fell back lamely on Rahul Gandhi and the Congress Party.

Toward the end, there are strong criticisms, including this paragraph, which is scarcely what a Modi interview is supposed to generate: "He has not done enough to promote other talented individuals. In the course of a long conversation he never once refers to any of his ministers. He tends to say things like 'I have created a ministry' or 'My government is acting.' When speaking about world affairs, he focuses on his personal rapport with other leaders. He seems to think he is the government."

Earlier this month, what looked like well-informed reports said that Modi would hold his first press conference, on May 23, to mark the first anniversary of his swearing in. But he decided not to do so, and instead Jaitley was fielded at a big press conference to deploy his suave and agile lawyer's mind to defend the government's record. Jaitley is a good spokesman, but he is not the prime minister, and Modi's decision not to appear in person was a setback for his image as a strong and confident leader.

Other prime ministers, of course, have given very few media conferences, notably Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee who led India's last two governments. But Singh was naturally withdrawn and wary of upsetting Sonia Gandhi, his party leader, while Vajpayee was aging and spoke little.

Modi, by contrast, is a consummate extrovert who loves performing in public and does it well. He is doing neither himself nor his government any favors by remaining aloof from the media, and it looks as if his tweet-based public relations efforts are not working because polls have found that only a small minority (20 percent in one survey) say that Modi effectively communicates through social media. Even fewer (17 percent) say his big speeches have made a substantial impact.

It is widely known that Modi's distaste for the media stems from the reporting after the 2002 riots, for which he was widely held responsible. But if he expects everyone to forget those riots and judge him on his current record, shouldn't he put his 2002 views on the media behind him and deal with reporters, as Lance Price says, in a way that one would expect from a prime minister in an open democracy?

John Elliott's new book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India). This article first appeared at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com.

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